Is veganism the secret to superior athletic performance?
I’ve noticed a new trend sweeping through both the vegan and athletic communities that inadvertently poses this line of questioning and has left me quite confused, because the answer seems obvious.
Whatever individual benefits an athlete gets from changing their diet, whether that is in a way of eating that is more in tune with their biological processes (gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, etc.) or just switching from energy sapping junk food to energy giving health food, the evidence that an herbivorous diet will bring about massive athletic accomplishments is simply unfounded, or marginal at best. The evidence lies in the record books at least. Search through all the record holders in every running distance and tell me which ones are vegans. The fact that mind-blowing paces can be set at distances from 5000 meters to ultramarathons by athletes eating animal products disproves that, as some are trying to posit, omnivorous eating is detrimental to ones health. This is simply not true. One can eat animal products and succeed in both health and athletics. For most, this is kind of a “duh” statement, so why would I even bring this up?
I bring this seemingly obvious statement up because I continue to come across vegan advocates that are relying on the success of vegan athletes to promote herbivorous eating from an exaggerated and illogical standpoint. They either point to the accomplishments of other vegan athletes (or those who have made the change recently) or to themselves as examples of how superior veganism is to other diets, when the same tactic could be used to convince people to eat animal products. It’s an incredibly short-sighted persuasive tactic that I fear does 2 things to the promotion of veganism.
1. I fear it sets people up for failure, in that if they DON’T see athletic progress after switching to a vegan diet, even if they follow it appropriately and get all the nutrients they need, then they’ll bail on the effort all together….and become less willing to consider trying it again in the future. Ultimately, the animals suffer.
2. This new promotion of veganism as an athletic booster, although slyly benefitting the lives of animals, continues to keep the whole ethical discussion of the treatment of animals out of the picture almost entirely, and puts the focus of veganism’s benefits on much shakier ground.
Let’s address both of these points more in depth. Regarding number 1, specifically distance running, veganism will not make you fast. Period. Does eating a diet more focused on athletic pursuits make you a better athlete? Of course it does, and often this involves eating close, closer or entirely to a vegan diet, but that does not mean veganism is a magical dietary bullet that will shave minutes off your mile paces…because it won’t. Your diet is an asset to your athletics, not the foundation. Do you want to know how to get faster as a runner?
Hard, consistent training….and good genetics. That’s it.
I’m telling you this from the standpoint of a long time vegan (almost 17 years), an athlete with enough accomplishment to garner some credibility on the matter (sucker), and a vegan that puts the consideration of the lives of animals over everything else. I COULD try to pave a path to saving animals lives by telling you I run fast because I’m vegan….but here’s the thing, I trust you. I know you’re not an idiot and can see right through that. The reason I’m a fast runner is because my parents passed on some good genes that have primed my body to do things other people’s bodies can’t….and then I honed and shaped that talent. Through consistent running with high intensity workouts and a good deal of guidance, I’ve been able to transform my body into a more powerful running machine that goes longer and faster. Veganism did not do that. It had a PART in supporting my training, but I don’t run fast because I’m vegan. I run fast because I train hard.
So, I’m not going to sell you on some “magical diet” devoid of any ethical considerations, or convince you to try the latest concoction of Udo’s oil, or devise a new energy bar that will promise you maximum athletic gains or any snake oil junk like that. I’m going to give it to you straight….run consistently, run hard, eat well. That’s it. THAT’s how you get better. If you continuously come across runners/athletes promoting vegan diets due to their personal magical transformations, check to see if they are either selling you something directly, are sponsored by a number of vegan companies or have made a number of other changes to their athletic focus while switching to veganism.
Now, don’t get me wrong, veganism is one of the most important decisions you can make in your life and I’m not trying to DISSUADE anyone from going vegan…that would be the LAST thing I would ever do, but the decision is so important to the lives of animals the world over that I want the consideration to be made on solid logical grounding, based on factual and ethical considerations (among others) that has true staying power and doesn’t get mired in pop culture dieting trends or rests on one’s ability to continue to run PR’s till the day they die. The animals deserve better than that.
So to be succinct, I’m not going to sell you the idea that veganism will make you a better athlete. I won’t sell you any supplements or energy bars to make you run faster. I won’t sell you any extreme “clean diet” or anything of the like. If you read my blog (sucker) to gain anything about running faster, the only thing I will sell you is this….
Personal Best Training – That’s the site for my coach who had a huge part in developing my running. He gave me consistent and hard training that developed my abilities. THAT got me running much faster than I had before.
Ok, moving on. Regarding number 2. I’m actually quite ecstatic to see veganism hitting the spotlight more and more, even when relegated to the athletic community, because that tired old defense of killing animals, “Veganism makes you scrawny and weak”, is as old as it is absurd. Although athletes have been disproving this for centuries, having higher-profile, high performing athletes to reference makes getting past that dumb accusation that much easier, so we can move onto more relevant topics. I truly enjoy seeing vegan athletes being touted in the media, but at times I’m left scratching my head when an entire article doesn’t even once mention the emotional or physical lives of animals in relation to someone choosing the diet. The terms “meat” and “fish” are thrown around in these articles in a manner that completely objectifies the animals and deprives them of any acknowledgement beyond “products”. Of course, this is another “duh” statement. This is how individuals and culture rationalizes the treatment of animals anyways, by completely objectifying them and making them unrecognizable “products” not “beings” with extensive emotional, intellectual and physical lives. I know this, but it seems so odd that someone would go out of their way to unnecessarily restrict their eating options if they really don’t have to or couldn’t care less about benefitting the lives of animals in anyway. The discussion around veganism lately has evolved (devolved?), at times, almost completely away from what eating animals does to the actual animals and more about what it, selfishly, does to/for athletic performance. As I alluded to in my points about number 1…who frickin’ cares? Veganism is not an athletic experiment…it’s a consideration of other beings we share the earth with and how to make the existence for both of us as rewarding and devoid of suffering as best we can.
“But, does it really matter the motives behind why people eat vegan or not? Isn’t the end result that animals don’t get eaten?”
Yes…absolutely true. In the end, if someone is vegan because they do it for spiritual reasons, athletic reasons, or just because they are completely bored…even if any of those reasons have ABSOLUTELY NO ethical consideration at all…the animals still benefit. This is all that matters….but the problem is that our behaviors and decisions are not static, but continuously adapting to context, and without highly convincing motivations behind our actions, our behaviors, mannerisms (dietary habits) are subject to easily changing and the last thing I want to see is veganism fall into the pop culture pit of trending, where it gains support for a few months and then becomes laughable from there on out. Granted, I think veganism has much more staying power than that, but I still worry about stripping veganism of its ultimate ethical value and the long term consequences of that dynamic. Take Carl Lewis for instance.
The vegan community continues to post the video where Carl Lewis talks about how veganism made him a better athlete during his gold medal winning days, but to my knowledge, he is no longer vegan because his athletic days are over. Veganism no longer serves his selfish purposes. He can now move on. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he’s just vegetarian now).
And most recently we have Dave Zubriskie on top of the athletic vegan totem pole, who by all basic definitions is NOT vegan. He eats fish, because he’s still worried about his iron levels. His decision to eat vegan has nothing to do with ethics and when the diet no longer serves his purpose, the animals pay the ultimate price. The list goes on with Bill Clinton eating a NON-VEGAN plant-based diet and so on, though everyone falls all over themselves to label these celebrities vegan when they really aren’t. Am I being nitpicking here? I don’t think so.
My great concern in all this is, again, that the ethical components that were the very foundation for veganism get so diluted and watered down that the term itself no longer conjures up the idea that animals have lives worthy of consideration.
So how do we address this diversion from ethics?
Primarily, we need to be very clear that no matter what cultural trend attaches itself to veganism, that our roots are ethical, that the well being of other animals is always the reasoning behind our actions. Whether we are athletes, religious leaders, nutritionists, celebrities, we need to always reinforce that veganism is about ethics in order to keep that association at its very core, so when other people that eat vegan without the ethical considerations grab the limelight, they are at least forced to address the issue. It doesn’t have to be chastizing or brutish or ugly, but the relationship we have with animals used as food must always be made part of the conversation. Bill Clinton should have been made to at least acknowledge farm animals in his interview. Dave Zabriskie should be constantly challenged for using the term “vegan” at all. I’m not trying to be unnecessarily harsh. I’m trying to keep the focus where it should be, which is on the treatment of animals used as food.
Finally, we need to stop using veganism as the debating trump card whether that is in a discussion about health or athletics. It’s not. Veganism will not make you faster or stronger or more spiritual or disease ridden. It can help, yes, but it is not inherent. We need to be honest in our discussions and in our approach, that way we can see the inadequacies in both our viewpoints and tactics. The worst that could come from looking at veganism as NOT the answer to all the world’s problems is that we end up relying on more inarguable points and honing our approach and tactics to become more convincing…in the end, continuously making the lives of animals more visible and moving them off our plate, out of the factory farms and back into the wild where they belong.
With the idea that we should always hold an ethical basis to our promotion of veganism I want to plug a couple books…..Eating Animals and Vegan For Life. Both books deserve their own dedicated post, so I’ll commit to writing something about them soon…pinky promise.